This is the era of weird Grand Slams. In 2018 a massive US Open crowd howled as Serena got into it with an ump. Then Slams were canceled, postponed and played without fans. It was eerie.
Naomi Osaka wore masks calling for racial justice and Novak failed to grab history at the 2021 US Open when he fell short of gaining the calendar Slam. Then there was Nole’s deeply dysfunctional COVID misadventure Down Under. The French Open endured absurd night play, a wretched injury Alexander Zverev suffered while playing Rafa, and the fabulous Nole vs. Rafa match was just a warm-up act – a quarterfinal. Still, compared with the Aussie soap opera, the Roland Garros issues this year were just the normal chaos.
Two years ago Wimbledon shut down, but it was okay financially due to a sweet insurance policy. Last year there were reduced crowds. This year there has been chaos. Players were banned and ranking points were stripped. The top two ATP players weren’t in the draw, contenders Matteo Berrettini and Marin Cilic withdrew due to COVID and there were massive upsets (think Hubie Hurkacz, Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek, who was on a 37-match winning streak). Only one of the top 15 women’s seeds made it to the fourth round and the GOAT, Ms. Serena, lost to a French woman with a triple digit ranking.
Bad boy Nick Krygios was playing real good, despite being called a bully by a Greek on Sunday and being called to an Australian court for possible abuse on Wednesday.
Go figure. Now the weirdest tourney in the weirdest era of Slams turned a whole lot weirder. Rafa Nadal, one of the game’s great medical heroes who somehow recently has overcome a bum foot and a cracked rib, withdrew from his much anticipated grudge showdown with his polar opposite, Aussie Kyrgios.
Earlier in the day, he had looked horrible on the practice court. His serve was tepid. He sat courtside on the grass in despair. He walked slowly to his car. He seemed despondent, and it took hours to communicate his decision. He knew he could not compete in two matches in three days and if he played his injury could get worse. He confided, “For me the most important thing is happiness, not any title.” He said he was playing at a high level and was proud of playing through the injury as he downed Taylor Fritz in a fifth-set tiebreak in the quarterfinals.
Rafa had only retired from eight matches in his career. He’d pulled out of a huge showdown vs. Roger Federer at Indian Wells in 2019. Also at Indian Wells, Venus Williams pulled out of her 2001 semi vs. Serena in a move that would lead to the most problematic boycott in WTA history. There were last minute withdrawals deep into the Miami Open. Still, nothing as impactful has ever happened as the withdrawal of superstar Nadal, who was seeking a calendar Slam.
In 1992 Richard Krajicek pulled out of the Australian Open semis. Back in 1931, Brooke Shields’ grandad Frank pulled out of the Wimbledon final due to an ankle injury and Sidney Wood was handed the trophy.
This spring, Wimbledon sought to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by banning Russian players. They wanted to avoid a propaganda coup for Putin. Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, handing the trophy to a Russian would be a bad look that was not acceptable.
But it’s tough to twist fate. Now Russia’s Medvedev is No. 1 in the world. And Russian-born Elena Rybakina, who trained at Moscow’s famous Sparta Club and whose parents still live in Moscow, today beat 2019 champ Simona Halep and is into the final. Rybakina has long played for Kazakhstan but dodges questions on whether she still has a place in Moscow.
Spanish media reported that Rafa had a 7-millimeter tear in his abdomen. In a crowded pop-up press conference, Nadal told the media he had been feeling pain here at Wimbledon and then it got worse early in his quarterfinal battle with Fritz. He decided not to risk further injury and said that it should take three or four weeks to heal. Then he hopes to play his normal schedule.
But today in this island kingdom, where a controversial British Prime Minister stepped down and a beloved Spanish tennis icon announced a shock withdrawal, there seemed to be very little that was normal.